In my last blog I told you about all that rain forest wood carelessly dumped on the banks of the river Loire in France. Micheline asked me a few more questions about the demand for this african or south american wood and I explained the difficulties the french shipyards had in the beginning of the 1950’s to get decent oak for their fishing boats and that imported woods became more in demand. As I was talking to my wife, suddenly the solution to a boat building problem that had stumped us shipwrights for the last 50 years came to my mind.

It’s not a story of great importance anymore but had we known it in the 1950’s it would have been. You see, in those years wooden boat building in France was still the only way whereby a fisherman could obtain a sound vessel for a price he could pay. Most harbours had a shipyard, some more than one and in all of these yards the shipwrights knew their job admirably. I know, I went to a fair number with my old schooner and I was never disappointed or cheated. Until those years the apprentice system had been functioning perfectly with the result that these artisans might not have had great knowledge of Louis XIV’s crétineries but they showed mastership in their knowledge of wood and the means to shape it.

In France there used to live most excellent oak forests and a lot remain for the manufacture of wine barrels and furniture. Such trees are not always the best for boat building, the oak tree that stands by himself in a meadow or some other hardy place is the finest tree from which to shape the timbers of a vessel. But these trees became more difficult to find and the french boat builders were also running out of timber for the planking of their craft. That’s when the companies that had started to destroy the rain forest came to the rescue(?) of the shipwrights by proposing a yellow- brown wood from Africa, called Iroko. The salesmen offered vast trunks (2-3m diam.) of this timber for much less than the going price of local oak. It is a dense, straight-grained wood easily sawn although it contains mineral matter that soon blunts the saw teeth.

During those years many boats were built in Bretagne for the crayfish and lobster fisheries and the boats became bigger, up to 35 meters, because the fishermen had to go further and further to catch their prey as the local crustaceans had almost been wiped out. The vast trunks of Iroko wood were shaped into planking for many fishing boats of all sizes and the fishermen were happy with their boats until about 10-12 years later. My schooner was then in the care of a shipyard in Bretagne and with wife and kids we spent a lot of good time there.

Those same years the defaults of Iroko planking began to show up. When a fishing boat goes onto the slip for a clean-up or repair the first action is to put a high pressure water hose blasting the hull to get most of the marine growth off it. The first disagreeable surprises started there as that powerful water jet went right through a few planks, iroko planks. Albert, patron of the shipyard called me, he thought I knew a lot about wood but I was as stumped as he was. Next to perfectly good planks, here and there, were planks that you could stick in a ballpoint pen. Yes, we had already these things in those ancient times. All that my friend Albert could do was to put in new planks at his cost as he had built the boat 11 years before. Honour in France is best served by artisans. More boats were found with the same buggered up iroko planking and none of us could figure out why some of these planks turned into putty while most of them remained perfectly all right. My old friend, Auguste Tertu, famous Brittany boat builder, you can meet him in my book ‘Ocean Advocate’, told me that he had never used iroko because he did not know how it would age. “You see, Nick,” he told me as he was pulling out a chunk of wood, “this is elm and you know as well as I that elm is an excellent wood to use under water but it rots quickly between wind and water. It took a long time for shipwrights to know this. Iroko may be good stuff but we don’t know and I can’t afford to risk to have to replank one of my vessels if the wood doesn’t last.”

In those days I had not seen the way these rainforest tree trunks were carelessly dumped any old where but now I understand why these fishing boats lost their planking and quite a number were at sea when that happened. Every year boats and crews disappeared inexplicably and now I think I know why.

Those splendid trunks of rainforest wood picked up fungi where they were dumped on wet ground in Europe. Insects make holes you can see but a fungus is an insidious beasty that might not show up for many years. Parts of trees or whole ones were infected and the planks that disintegrated came from that timber.

I wish I’d known that 50 years ago but then, there are so many things I didn’t know 50 years ago. At times it can be quite fun to become an old sodger.


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